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Access to the Community

By Marianne Valls

Every minority struggles for its independence regardless of what the law says. No law waves a magic wand and the doors of freedom automatically open. Those who are oppressed must pry the doors open by using the law. Laws that are not used become meaningless pieces of paper. Passed in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gave people with disabilities access to the community. It is now up to people with limitations to become active participants in society as the ADA intended.

Curb cuts, ramps, accessible transportation, and laws against discrimination in the workplace give people the ability to freely move about the community. They enable people to shop, to go out with friends, to take advantage of educational and recreational opportunities, to seek employment and voice their concerns at town meetings. The law calls for equal access and it is up to people with disabilities to use their freedom. One of the findings that influenced Congress to create the Americans with Disabilities Act was that people with disabilities were isolated from the larger community.

It was hoped by people who worked so hard for the passage of the ADA that people with disabilities would view their new found access as a chance to become true members of society. One of the biggest barriers against people with physical and/or mental challenges that still exist in the mainstream is attitude. Only people with disabilities can change people’s perceptions. After all, we have been given the tools, and now we must use them.

For example, a shopkeeper will willingly make his store accessible if he knows he’s going to gain customers. The Americans with Disabilities Act is like a tennis match; the ball is in our court. In this day and age, money is the coin of the realm. Green is green whether it is earned (a preferred option) or it comes in the form of a government check. People with disabilities and their family members should go out of their way to patronize businesses that have obeyed the law and made their establishments accessible. They should also spread the word that a store has complied with the law.

A case in point was the corner store in my neighborhood. Years ago the owner placed a ramp to the door of his business. After the store was made accessible, my companion, James Stoney, always used that store to buy his cigarettes. It angered Stoney when the businesses around the accessible store continued to have a “step up” ignoring the law. He created his own boycott!

Another example of activism is as follows. Paulette Eberle and others sued NJ Transit to gain access to mass transit. With walker in tow, I stood with Paulette to stop buses requesting access. I used a walker and needed the lift. When buses denied access, we would take down the bus number and registered a complaint.

Paulette is the true hero of gaining access to mass transit. She, along with her colleagues from NJ Citizen Action eventually took a video camera to record buses that would not let their lifts down to create access for those who are unable to board the bus in the traditional way. When ready, Paulette and the others involved took the case to court, and they won! The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) calls for barrier-free access in all areas of society including transportation. It is the obligation of people with disabilities to see that the ADA is enforced. The late New Jersey activist Colleen Fraser once remarked that people with disabilities must be the “police force” that ensures their freedom.

Without people with disabilities demanding access, the ADA and other laws calling for it become quite meaningless. To be fully included in society takes work, and it is the responsibility of people with disabilities to take charge of their own lives. If people do not have full equality under the law, they have no one but themselves to blame.

The fight for equality for disability rights started at the University of California, Berkeley. Known also as the “Independent Living Movement,” its founder was Ed Roberts who started his career as a disability rights activist when he was in high school. He was paralyzed from the neck down as a result of polio, which he contracted at the age of fourteen (two years before the Salk vaccine ended the epidemic). As a result of his bout with polio, he was left with the use of two fingers on one hand and several toes. Until his mother insisted that he attend school a few days a week, Ed participated in classroom work by a phone hook-up in his home.

It was in school that he experienced prejudice and discrimination because of his disability. The source came not only from fellow classmates but teachers as well. It was at school where he was forced to think of himself as a “star” rather than let others define him. He was denied a diploma because he was not able to complete the physical and driver education course requirements. That denial was the start of his career as an advocate.

His fight for equality continued at the University of California, Berkeley. His first struggle was with the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) to obtain sponsorship for the right to attend college to prepare for employment. Once he got there he experienced discrimination on many fronts during his college years.

His admission into Berkeley was the start of the Independent Living Movement. Roberts’ acceptance at the University opened the door for other students with disabilities. One of the problems he and his fellow classmates with disabilities faced was housing. The misconception that disabilities are illnesses caused the administration to segregate the group into what became known as the Cowell Residence Program. While Cowell was primarily a medical facility, Roberts would only accept the living arrangements if it were treated as a dorm.

Ed along with his fellow classmates, who also had physical limitations, soon formed a group known as the “Rolling Quads” and eventually created the Physically Disabled Students Program (PDSP). They fought for curb cuts which gave them wider access to the community. PDSP was soon giving information and referral to the larger disabled community and Ed Roberts was off to Washington, D.C. to gain funding through a federal start-up program.

While Ed Roberts did not create Centers for Independent Living (CIL) he did have the opportunity to lead the first CIL in the country after receiving a Masters from Berkeley in Political Science. Forty years later these centers are in every state in country as well as in many countries throughout the world fulfilling the needs of the disability community.

The Independent Living philosophy postulates that people with disabilities are the best experts on their needs and therefore they must take the initiative, individually and collectively, in designing and promoting better solutions and must organize to assert their influence and political power. The IL movement stresses inclusion, self-representation and an understanding of all disabilities.

Individuals with disabilities have always been the driving force in their fight for independence. They cannot surrender it to others. They must direct their own lives. Free people take charge; they do not wait to have freedom handed to them.

Join me in celebrating the 28th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA)!

Ms. Valls is a longtime member of hip living in Hudson County and has been published in several journals and publications on issues affecting people with disabilities.

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